A group of military families opposed to the occupation of Iraq demonstrated in front of the White House recently, calling on President George Bush to end the occupation and withdraw US troops immediately.

 

"We are here to bring a message to the president ... We are saying - end the occupation, end the war and bring the troops home now," said Charley Richardson.

He is co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, an organisation of about 1500 military families with children and spouses serving in Iraq, some of whom have already died in combat.

 

Richardson’s own son, Joe, is a US Marine who returned home safely from Iraq in May of last year. Other families at the demonstration were not so fortunate.

 

Sue Niederer, from Pennington, New Jersey, lost her son Seth, an Army 1st lieutenant who was killed in Iraq on 3 February 2004.

Rosa and Mario Gonzolez of Rialto, California lost their son, Marine Cpl. Jorge Gonzalez to a friendly fire incident on 23 March 2003.

And Fernando Suarez del Solar’s son Jesus was killed by a cluster bomb just four days later.

 

Expressions of anger

 

At a news conference held before the protest, these families and several others with relatives in Iraq expressed a mix of anger, sadness and outrage at the Bush administration’s decision to go to war.

They used harsh language to describe the invasion and subsequent occupation as "senseless, immoral and illegal". 

 

The families say Bush does not
understand their pain

"We saw all those who were saying, 'We’ve got to go to war,' weren’t going anywhere, nor were their loved ones," said Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out.

"It was our loved ones who would be used as cannon fodder in a war for oil markets and empire building," she said. 

 

Lessin urged both Congress and the administration to spend "not one more day, not one more dime, not one more life" fighting in Iraq.

 

Rosa Gonzalez said Bush did not understand the pain inflicted on parents whose sons and daughters have died for a cause they do not believe in.

 

"He [Bush] is not paying the consequences," Gonzalez said. "The consequences are paid by the families."

 

The protest came on the same day several news organisations reported that the Pentagon planned to extend the combat tours of more than 10,000 soldiers in Iraq.

The annoucement came
 in response to several weeks of fierce fighting between US forces and resistance fighters in Falluja and southern Iraq.

 

Bloodiest month

 

April has already become the bloodiest month in Iraq since the occupation, with more than 80 US troops killed in two weeks.

Vicky Monk is the mother of a soldier whose tour of duty was recently extended by three months after spending almost a year in Iraq.

 

"[Bush] has no concept of the anguish that all of us go through every single day ... He has no concept that I love my son as much as he loves his daughters," Monk said.

 

In a recent prime-time news conference, Bush said: "There's no question it's been a tough, tough series of weeks for the American people."

 

More families are asking for their
loved ones' return

 "It’s been really tough for the families," he said. "I understand that. It's been tough on this administration. But we're doing the right thing."

 

Such words did not appear to comfort Jessica Salamon, whose husband is a member of the Ohio National Guard and was recently deployed to Iraq. She is now in therapy and suffers from insomnia, she said.

 

"I can’t not think about him," Salamon said. "I actually have a lot of problems not being able to do anything else."

 

When she pictures her husband, she often imagines the worst.

 

"A few times in the past few weeks when he’s called, I’ve heard mortars in the background," she said.

 

Anti-war sentiments

 

While these families conveyed bitter anti-war sentiments, there are just as many, if not more, military families with relatives in Iraq who supported the war and the ongoing troop presence. 

 

Madaleine Strauss, whose nephew was recently injured in Iraq, said she initially supported the invasion but had come to view the occupation as an "atrocity".

 

Those who marched to the White House to deliver several hundred letters to the president said the conflict would never be worth the lives of their sons, daughters, husbands and wives.

 

As Suarez del Solar stood next to the podium at the news conference listening to one family member after another describe their own personal heartache, what began as small tears in the corner of his eyes, slowly turned to trickles streaming down his cheeks. 

 

"The door to the White House is closed to military families"

Suarez del Solar,
member of a military family

Later, as he stood at one of the side gates of the White House, he angrily denounced Bush when told by security guards that he could not enter to see the president.

 

"The door to the White House is closed for me," he said. "The door to the White House is closed to military families."

 

The White House press office did not return a telephone call for this story.

 

When the procession of families and other protesters attempted to leave flowers in front of the fence at the South lawn of the White House, a police officer confronted them, saying it was a restricted area. 

 

A few of the relatives ignored the warning and the police let the crowd go through.

 

After the families had left, a small group of Muslim American activists arrived to "perform an act of civil disobedience".

Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, was arrested for deliberately crossing a police line in protest against the Iraqi occupation, as well as Bush’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.